ABILENE — Normally in a situation when the Monarchs were trailing by three scores, the bus driver was getting ready to head to the transportation wagon and warm it up for the long ride home.
But this year, there’s something different about the Thomas More Prep-Marian football team.
It showed in Friday night’s season opener as the Monarchs battled back time after time, eventually losing on the final play of the game to Class 4A Division I Abilene, 32-27.
“I think they showed themselves tonight that they are dadgum good football players,” said second-year TMP coach Jason Cauley. “And I hope they realize that on the way home what they did tonight. Although we didn’t come out with the victory, the result we wanted to, dadgummit I’m proud of these boys. We fought and fought and never gave up. It’s going to turn the hump this year.”
The five-point loss wasn’t an ideal ending, but seeing that the Monarchs trailed 20-0 to start the game and 32-14 entering the fourth quarter, the team’s fight never left the field.
“We’ve never had a season opener like this,” said senior quarterback David McFarland. “We’re just going to keep building and building off what we did here tonight.”
Indeed, the Monarchs never have had a season-opener like that, and McFarland hadn’t had a game like that either.
The senior, who missed most of last season with an injury, set a new state record with 648 passing yards while completing 41 of 63 attempts for four touchdowns compared to two interceptions.
The old record, according to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, was 627 yards by Sunrise Christian Academy’s Zach Howell in 2011. McFarland was only three completions shy of tying Howell’s 2008 single-game record of 44, set in 2008.
The 63 attempts set a new state single-game record for attempts. The old record was 58 by a Shawnee Heights team in 1985, and the 648 passing yards set a new team single-game record as well, eclipsing Sunrise Christian’s 627 in 2011.
“How many did he throw for, 1,000 in one game?” Cauley said sarcastically. “I don’t know. The kid stood in there. He threw a pick early, and it looked like he got banged up. People don’t know how tough that kid is — not only physically, but he’s mentally tough as well. He stood in there, and he was gunslinger tonight. That was fun for me. That was fun to watch. I admire that kid. And all of our receivers just played great. Our offensive line played hard. Those kids fought tooth and nail. I love them.”
McFarland’s first interception came with TMP (0-1) trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter. He laid a hard hit on the Abilene defender who picked off the ball on the sideline and was slow to get up.
But the Cowboys (1-0) fumbled the ball away, and TMP recovered, only to see Abilene senior running back Trey Hoerner eventually rumble in with his second TD of the game to make it 20-0 with 10:30 to play before halftime.
“We just have to keep fighting back,” McFarland said. “Our offense is so powerful that we’re never out of games.”
McFarland then started picking apart the Abilene defense. A 5-yard strike to senior Tate Garcia made it 20-7 with 4:55 remaining in the second quarter.
He followed with a 56-yard dart to Garcia on the Monarchs' next possession, making it 20-14 at the break.
“We just had to drive the ball and get it to the playmakers and let them go score,” said McFarland, who went 22 of 32 in the first half for just shy of 300 yards passing.
The Monarchs had a chance to grasp momentum early in the third quarter. TMP drove down to the Abilene 9-yard line before turning it over on downs.
But the defense held firm, forcing the Cowboys into a third-and-11 from their own 7.
That is, until Abilene senior quarterback Trevor Casteel found junior running back James Mayden open in the middle of the field. Mayden hauled in the catch and then weaved his way the rest of the 93 yards for a 26-14 advantage.
Hoerner add his third TD of the game on the Cowboys’ next possession, leaving TMP trailing 32-14 with 6:31 left in the third quarter.
“We had them third-and-long down here,” Cauley said. “No. 1 (Mayden) for them made a heck of a catch and it was a good throw, and he took it 93 yards to the house. That was a heart-breaker. It took the winds out of our sail for a couple series. But our boys didn’t quit. They didn’t give up at all. I’m proud of them. They fought tooth and nail. We’re going to come in this week and fix up what we need to fix up, and we’ll be ready for Ellis.”
On the Monarchs’ first possession of the fourth quarter, McFarland connected with senior Creighton Renz down the right sideline. Renz hauled in the long pass and outran the defense for a 70-yard score, pulling TMP within 32-21 with 8:59 to play.
After an Abilene punt, McFarland connected on four straight passes, the final one being a 35-yard bomb to senior Karl Rack, making it 32-27 with 4:39 remaining.
Abilene tried to milk the clock on the ensuing possession with a steady dose of runs. Facing third-and-4 at their own 38, the Monarch defense rose to the occasion, forcing the Cowboys into a 1-yard loss with a stop in the backfield.
“We stepped up there,” junior linebacker Kaleb Hagans said. “Everyone was like, ‘We got this. We can do this.’ Everybody had it in their heads. Last year, we would have been down 50 and done by the second half. We had it in our minds that we could do this. We had a shot. Everyone wanted to step up and be that person to stop them.”
The Cowboys punted the ball away, giving TMP one final drive to win it.
“I don’t know of a TMP in the past that would have done that,” Cauley said. “Nothing against all those other teams, but this is a different team, and I hope they realize they don’t need to get down on themselves and to just strive to get better and better because we can do something better this year.”
McFarland moved the Monarchs down the field, and senior Trenton Mayo put the Monarchs at the 1-yard line with 7.7 seconds left after a catch and a dive for the goal line.
But the Monarchs were whistled for a penalty, moving the ball back to the Abilene 19.
McFarland lofted a pass to Renz in the end zone, but the play was broken up with less than 2 seconds remaining.
On the final play, McFarland was sacked trying to buy time — the only time he was sacked in the game.
“They had a lot of resilience,” said Cauley, whose team gave up TDs on three plays on third-and-9 or longer in the game. “I’m so proud of the boys. I love each and every one of them. I love our fans. I love our staff. I couldn’t be prouder of the effort. Of course, it’s not the outcome we wanted, but I feel like we won that game. I pretty sure we out-gained them on offense. There’s a lot of things we have to shore up. We have to tackle better. We have to be fundamentally sound on pad level and everything else. But we’re going to fix that. As coaches, we’re going to fix that. As players, they have to be disciplined enough to fix that, and I think they are.”
Renz finished with 13 catches for 224 yards, and Garcia added 11 receptions for 168 yards. Senior Luke Ruder had six catches for 104 yards. Six different players caught a pass.
Despite the loss, there was a newfound excitement among the players following the game. TMP went 2-7 a year ago and 1-8 in 2015. TMP hasn’t posted a winning record since 2011.
“I’m really excited,” Hagans said. “This is going to be one of the best seasons TMP has had in a long time.”